Library of Things – a space where you can come to borrow useful items and learn how to use them @The Wasted City book

Interview with Sophia Wyatt of Library of Things

The Wasted City book is a collection of work that combines compelling insights on circularity by external professionals, experts and thinkers with a case-based approach. The latter is pursued by various specialised individuals working directly with CITIES’ international team, casting light on inspiring initiatives that are breaking the linear mould. In total, 16 cases are explored; spanning scales, from the hyper-local to the regional, sectors including food, energy and material waste while focusing on sharing, commodity brokerage and empowerment. As there is no ‘one-size’ solution to make a city circular, the presented cases demonstrate the heterogeneity of approaches, all of which are critical to further the development of circular cities. Let us introduce you one of them – the Library of Things – an innovative space for sharing in London. Alex Thibadoux, our independent researcher went to the Library to get to know them closer, read their story below.


CITIES Foundation: Can you tell what you do at Library of Things?

Sophia Wyatt: There are three of us that run Library of Things as a core team, and then we have a team of librarians to help bring it to life. My role at Library of Things is more along the design and tech. I lead on those things. It was quite a busy period going into launch. So it was design, everything from what is the service design, what is the experience when people come into a Library of Things to what does our brand look like and our space look like? And then we have built with a developer based in Bristol, UK a platform that works as an asset management system and a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system called Lend Engine. I also host the space, more or less every week to keep understanding how people are using it, what people like, don’t like, that kind of thing.

How did it all start?

 A couple of years ago, my colleagues, Emma Shaw, Rebecca Trevalyan and there was also a third person involved called James. The idea kind of came from Leila in Berlin and the Toronto Tool Library in Toronto. There was a desire to make it work in the UK, which is a very different market with very different preconceptions about what it might mean to borrow something. It had to kind of almost be designed from scratch. There wasn’t a template to do this. We did a pilot in the same area that we are in now, and because the property market in London is so crazy, it took us about 18 months to then find a permanent spot. But none of us do this full-time yet. In that 18 months, it was a side project that we would do in the evenings and the weekends. The first step was to register as a company, as a nonprofit, and then the next step was to raise money. It wasn’t 18 months of sitting around, it was 18 months of doing a crowd funding campaign, and working out where it was possible – we needed a space that was little to no rent in order to prove our concept in a more solid way. In the end we decided, let’s just do this, let’s get some shipping containers and build exactly what we want. We wanted to be able to try out ideas, and when you are squatting in someone else’s space, it is quite hard to really have that control. We wanted to be able to test things out properly. We then launched in July of this year, so we have been running and operating for about four months or so



Do you have any partners right now or any collaborators that you are working with?

In what sense? Do you mean financially? We don’t operate in isolation at all, we have quite a few organizations that we are connected to. I think that is a key learning from our experience – when you have a social enterprise on a small scale and you want to grow, you ultimately have to find someone, whether that be an organization or a benevolent person who is able to give you the space and time to do that. And on this site that we are on, the car park that we have got our shipping containers on, it is attached to something called Community Shop. Community Shop is a social supermarket, they get surplus food from big supermarkets. And they sell it at a 70% discount rate to people who receive some form of government support. And they also provide workshops and mentor schemes to those people that are members of their shop. So there is that, and next door to us is the recycling center for Lambeth, one of the main recycling centers for Lambeth. So there is a little ecosystem, which makes sense to people, because we are not on a high street right now. It needs to not be a random place. And then there is another organization that we are connected with called Civic, which is, the way describe it. . . have you heard of the Impact Hub Network? There are 88 of them around the world, and they are essentially little community hubs for social entrepreneurs. Civic is trying to create hubs of social enterprises. So its dream would be to see a Library of Things working in a similar space to another social enterprise, so that there can be shared energy. You can be a greater draw for people to come. You can share resources. That kind of stuff. One of the main guys behind Civic was the founder of the Impact Hub Network. His name is Jonathan Robinson. We are connected in a larger framework with those two, and we were given a grant from the RSA at the beginning of this year, which has been amazing. I don’t know if you know what the RSA – it is the Royal Society of Arts. It is an organization in the UK. . . it is looking at solutions to modern day challenges basically. It is interested in the progression of society. They are the main three organizational partners. We also work with big brands for our stock, so far we’ve had items from big brands, like B&Q and Patagonia. I don’t know if you know B&Q. It is a DIY and gardening chain of shops.

Do you know what your financial structure and funding will be moving forward?

 It’s early days, but we realize that we are not going to get all of our money from one source. We have to be pretty diverse about how we remain financially viable. We will be developing our business model in the coming months, but borrowing does generate the majority of our income for now. We will be still looking for grants. It is quite normal in the first year to be looking at grants. We will be doing that, but like I say, we are going to be looking at quite a few ways to remain as financially sustainable as possible. The ultimate aim is for us to be a community owned business, with a share offer for the community.

As you are developing as an organization, how do you all meet to decide what to do and make self-assessments for moving forward?

At the moment, like I said before, there is a core team of three of us, so it is quite easy to make decisions. But like I say, we would like to become a community owned business and be involving the community as much as possible in decisions. We are 4 months old, really it has just been the three of us up until now.

How many members do you have in the library.

At four months in, we have nearly 500 people signed up wanting to be a member, and we have about 300 who have actually come in and verified their membership. As a community project, we want to meet people that are part of Library of Things. The aim is for this not to be an anonymous thing, and as we test out exactly how people interact with us, we ask people to come in. It is part of signing up basically, coming into the space.

What will you have in your catalogue? How do you decide what will be available?

The things fit broadly into six categories. I often talk about it as we have things for making and mending, we have things for exploring and experimenting and we have things for events. So the idea is that we have items that are practically useful, and we have to try out and see if it is for you. For example it might be sports gear, it might musical instruments, it might even be camping. And then the practically useful things are the drills, the sewing machines, the wheelbarrows. Events stuff include projectors, big speakers, etc.



What sectors of the economy do you think that you will influence the most with your library?

Retail hopefully. That is the biggest one. Our whole kind of reason for being is to make borrowing a better experience than buying. That is what we want to do. Retail is the most obvious. I don’t know, there might be something around travel. How we belong in spaces and belong in areas, but yeah, retail is the most obvious.

Are you looking to expand across the UK and beyond eventually?

 Yes. We had a lot of interest when we first opening up. It works two ways: we have had a lot of interest and we also think it would be an amazing thing to spread. But we are very aware that it can’t be us going out and setting these up. Logistically it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work on a community level. It has got to come from the community and they have to want it. What we have put together is a toolkit, and we are holding a boot camp so that people can come partner up. We can build a network basically. It will be more of a cooperative than a franchise. We just want people to be able to essentially borrow anything, anywhere. That is part of the world we want to see.

 Has there been anything that has prevented your growth so far? Any specific challenges?

Not yet, I think it is too early days to say what is really limited us. If we had a massive amount of money invested you know, but you can have that kind of thing too early. No, nothing really yet. We are at such an early stage that it is really a lot about learning.

Do you think there is anything that can help you become more mainstream with the idea of borrowing in general?

 Hmm, that is a good question. No, I think any idea like ours, like the concept that you need to spread, it has to take a bit of time. I don’t think these things can just be accelerated. They can’t just suddenly become popular. One of the main reasons we have a physical place, rather than it just be a digital thing, is that we believe that people have to experience something tangibly in order to be able to understand what it can do for them. It is a really interesting phenomenon, digital companies like Amazon and Google are inhabiting physical spaces now. If you really want to reach as many people as possible, it has to really be a physical space as well as digital. We want to be as successful as possible, and that means reaching people who would normally be very afraid or be very suspicious of novelty and like to stay in their safe zone. It takes a bit of time and be done in a physical space.

How do you get most of the items in your library? Are they donated by individuals or purchased?

I would say it is about 80% donations. We have had donations from big brands who are supportive of what we do to individuals. We try to be quite strict about what we can have donated, because we need the Things to be in as good of condition as possible so that people want to borrow it. It has to be a better experience than buying. So it has to be something that either people don’t mind. . . like a hammer, people don’t really mind if it is a £100 pound hammer or a £20 hammer. Price is the most important indicator of that, but you kind of get my point, there are some things it really matters with. And we do buy certain key items if we haven’t been able to source them from donations. I think we ended up buying a really great PA system.



Can you tell me how you see Library of Things in the future?

Well we would like to imagine Library of Things in all kinds of different contexts in different kinds of communities. In libraries, in post offices, in community centers, in all kinds of places like that. The ultimate vision for it is that anyone can borrow anything, almost anywhere. Library of Things is about more than just the things themselves. It is about the experiences and skills that people can have with these things. Not only do you get to borrow a drill, but we also give you the knowledge to use it as well if you have never used it before. That might enable you, or give you the confidence to go and do a bit of DIY, like put up some shelves, that you have never done before. It is those kind of things that we are looking to grow and to connect more members within communities together, so that they can help each other more. That is where we see ourselves.


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Created on 13 June 2017

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